Audiobooks and Engagement

June 16, 2020 • #

Recently Nat Eliason started a thread on the subject of audiobooks, and how much lower comprehension and retention is when listening versus reading:

I know where he’s coming from here. I probably consume half my books in audio form, and on certain dimensions here I would agree. My general pattern is very selective in what I’ll choose to listen to instead of read in text. Fiction is typically pretty safe, and with non-fiction I tend to make a judgement call on how much I’ll want to take notes, highlights, or generally move more slowly through the ideas. For example, right now I’m reading both From Dawn to Decadence and The Open Society and its Enemies, two books that are not only in the 800+ page range, but also are full of rich references and other things that make me want to take my time with them.

Often even after listening to a book, if it’s particularly thought-provoking I have no problem also buying a Kindle version to flip through and annotate after listening sessions. I’ve done this probably 10 or 12 times and it works fine for me. I think everyone would agree that re-reads are much more fruitful for deep comprehension, and doing it this way with audio-then-text is sort of like having a primer on the material that makes the text reading far more productive.

I would also add that audiobook listening itself is a skill. When I first started listening to books, it took me a while to get comfortable with the activity. I’d listen to fiction and totally lose the plot after a few minutes, unable to follow along with what was happening. Now that I listen to audio routinely, along with thousands of hours of podcasts, I believe my auditory comprehension rate is much higher than it was, say, 10 or 15 years ago.

So I think if you combine treating it like a skill you can improve with time, being selective about what you choose to consume through audio, and augmenting listening with text for certain engaging books, audiobooks can be a high-signal new channel for knowledge.